The NCPH meets in Baltimore next year. We shouldn’t ignore what’s happened there this week.

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Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo credit: Nfutvol, Wikimedia Commons.

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo credit: Nfutvol, Wikimedia Commons

While researching at the LBJ Presidential Library over the last ten days, I’ve read numerous memos on the use of federal troops and National Guard units to quell the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. It was jarring to turn on the television Monday night and learn that Maryland’s governor had declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard in response to the protests in Baltimore. The parallels between my research and the news of the day were unmistakable. As with Watts in 1965, Chicago in 1966, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and countless cities–including Baltimore–in 1968, a decades-long shadow of racial exclusion, economic disinvestment, and police brutality hangs over the Baltimore communities that rose up in protest. Several people interviewed on the street described the death of Freddie Gray, though infuriating and tragic, as a reflection of a deeper pattern of structural inequality and systemic oppression. People said similar things about the incidents that sparked the riots of the 1960s. Then, as now, many commentators deflect these grievances through epithets like “thug” or vicious bromides about supposed social pathologies in communities of color.

It’s tempting to conclude that Americans have learned nothing in the last half-century. But the residents on the streets of Baltimore are keenly aware of their own history. The inspiring mobilization by many of their communities in response to this week’s conflicts demonstrates both a desire and a capacity to imagine an alternate future for the city. Public historians are well-suited to engage communities confronting the toxic legacies of past–and present–injustice. Coincidentally, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) will convene for its annual meeting in Baltimore next March. I am confident that we will disprove the pundits predicting that conventioneers will flee the city.  However, I hope our program will address the protests in a substantive way while also continuing and expanding on the conversations started in Nashville. What form will that take? How else can the NCPH and the public history community respond to the movements galvanized by the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and many others? Aleia Brown’s History@Work post and the Twitter chat she co-hosts with Adrianne Russell, #museumsrespondtoferguson, provide a model, but I’d appreciate your thoughts as well.

Richard Anderson is a doctoral student in twentieth-century American history at Princeton University. He received an MA in public history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

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Editors’ Note: The following are public history resources we have been able to compile over the past few days regarding the past and present of racial violence, policing, economic inequality, and uprisings in Baltimore. Please add additional resources in the comments section and/or by following the Google Doc link provided by Eli Pousson.

Before #FreddieGray and #BaltimoreUprising: Resources for Historians, Writers, Teachers, Journalists and More (Google Doc initiated by Eli Pousson)

Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth

Interview with Elizabeth M. Nix, “The Riots of ’68: What the riots in the wake of the King Assassination can, and can’t, teach us about Baltimore today,” Slate

Eli Pousson, “Before Freddie Gray: A History of Police Violence in Baltimore,” Historic Sprawl

Eli Pousson, “Before Freddie Gray: ‘The Police Board…made an order forbidding public parades,” Historic Sprawl

Is Baltimore Burning?” Archives of Maryland, Documents for the Classroom

Seth Rockman, “Mobtown, U.S.A.: Baltimore,” Common-place

Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage: Looking for Landmarks from the Movement

Mark Puente, “Undue Force,” Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Uprising: Share Your Experiences,” Course website for History 705/415, the graduate level Introduction to Public History at UMBC

Across the Divide: Stories of Race in Baltimore,” WYPR

How Bigotry Shaped Baltimore,” The Real News Network

Lecture by Howell Baum, author of Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism

  1. Last October, activists in Ferguson – more specifically, Deray and Netta of “This is the Movement Newsletter,” became frustrated at news that the Columbia School of Journalism had plans to create their own Ferguson newsletter. One of the most common criticisms of this idea, apart from the fact that Columbia is around one thousand miles away from Ferguson, was that the school had no plans, that we knew, to examine police violence in New York. And this was especially unsettling given Eric Garner’s death in July.

    That is to say, I think a wonderful way to approach these issue would be from the vantage point of our own communities. It is certainly easy to focus on these specific geographies of unrest over the last year – New York, Ferguson, Baltimore – but anti-blackness and police violence are everywhere. We know what is going on in Baltimore, but do we know how people in our own communities feel about their experiences?

    One of the things I’ve learned participating in the #museumsrespondtoferguson conversations is that our institutions are often not the places of change we want them to be. In that sense, I would love to see more of us working together on digital projects, teaching resources (like Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s Ferguson syllabus) or even teach-ins.

    But most importantly, anything that we do must be respectful and inclusive of those in the community already putting in the work – the physical and emotional labor – of sustaining a focus on these issues.

  2. Richard Anderson says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Elizabeth. I like the idea of institutions and programs working together. The work of the Humanities Action Lab–its Guantanamo project but especially its upcoming project on mass incarceration–might provide a useful model. As the participants explained the framework during their working group in Nashville, the mass incarceration project will reflect your call to examine our own communities. And yes, we absolutely need to recognize that local stakeholders are ALREADY engaging these issues. We should approach by asking “How can we help” rather than presuming that we can provide all the solutions.

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